I arrived in Strasbourg late afternoon on a clear July day. My photographs reflected the warm sunlight: a yellow-orange quality that cast the city in a wonderfully muted light. And most dramatic of all, it highlighted the Gothic la Cathédrale Notre Dame (Cathedral of Our Blessed Mother). Several thousand people – mostly tourists – were gathered in the square before the cathedral, sitting in cafés or simply wandering and admiring the ancient architecture.
A medieval town located near the German border, Strasbourg reflects both the French and German influences in its language and culture. Many of the buildings in the old district have a unique alpine quality, with heavy timber sides and red tile roofs, and are set on narrow streets. The cuisine has a unique French quality, subtle in the use of sauces and in the lightness of the pastries. Yet, there is an unmistakable and heartier German influence in the meat dishes, the strudel and, of course, the beer.
The cathedral rises high above a city block. Begun in the eleventh century, most of the construction was completed during the next four centuries. The elaborate Gothic structure contains, on its facade, intricately carved images of Jesus and the saints, and significant events in the christian history, from the birth of Jesus to his crucifixion and resurrection. In the warm, late afternoon sun, golden rays spread over the cathedral, a striking image of the power, passion and glory that drove the builders. Yet, there was something more: A reverence that awed and humbled those who look upon it.
My friend Frank who visited with me, was knowledgeable on the cathedral and the city’s history. He spoke of Johannes Gutenberg living for a time in Strasbourg, before he invented the printing press in nearby Mainz. And of John Calvin, the French Protestant theologian who had served as a pastor in Strasbourg from 1538 until 1541, before returning to Geneva to live the remainder of his life. And he told the story of André Malraux, the French writer, who in 1945 led a ragtag brigade of approximately 2000 men to protect Strasbourg, Metz and Mulhouse from the German assault, endearing him forever to the citizens of the city.
Visiting the Cathedral
Near the back of the big Cathedral square, Frank and I found a café and sat at a small, round oak table covered in a white cotton cloth; a young waiter arrived almost immediately. In his traditional outfit of black slacks, white shirt and apron, black vest, towel over his arm and combed-back hair, he took our orders for German larger. A covey of pigeons suddenly burst upward in front of us as the bells and carillons of the cathedral rang out, an explosion of sound, the notes rich and melodious
If there were ever any closer way to reach God, I thought, I don’t know it. My ears were ringing and my heart racing after the performance.
Finishing our lagers, we climbed the main set of worn, dark stone steps to the massive main doors of the Cathedral. The images delicately cut into the sandstone on the facade above and around the doors are slowly fading as the years and weather erodes the soft stone. Inside we were enveloped by the dark. The scent of incense and candles permeated the air. We stood before the famous astronomical clock. The figures that topped and surrounded the face of the scientific and religious creation filled much of the wall before us. We gazed upon death and life; religious and physical and astronomical images and figures; Strasbourg mean time and local time; the days of the week and the months of the year; and celestial phenomena.
“The last time I saw it, I knew I had to come back. It is – don’t know…an image of the Creator,” Frank said. “I thought I understood part of it, but that was only the basics…and it also tells time! I see the figures and I know who and what they represent; yet to see it all together makes me realize how insignificant we all are.”
At the entrance to the nave, we stood silent, gazing on the stained-glass windows that filled the massive stone walls to our left and right, each depicting figures and events in Christendom. The great Cathedral of Strasbourg makes for a humbling visit.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA